Marriage Equality

The New American Movement Team would like to respond to a recent article regarding a lawsuit from a couple with disabilities who would like to cohabitate after their recent marriage. The husband and wife (who both receive services from a New York State Office of Persons with Developmental Disabilities [NYS-OWPDD] licensed non-profit) are seeking to live together after three years of monogamy; however, are facing obstacles with the language presented in the NYS-OPWDD’s minimum requirements of community residences.

The New American Movement for People with Disabilities asserts that all individuals, including those with intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities have the right to fall in love and be in love, just as any other modern couple. Additionally, it is the responsibility of the public entity – as upheld in the Americans with Disabilities Act – to make “reasonable modifications” for individuals with disabilities to meet their social, physical, emotional and mental needs.

In the case of this couple receiving individual supports at different group homes, there is ambiguity between the New York State minimum requirements of community residences and the policies of the group homes. At this time, the homes of the couple cannot accommodate cohabitation. The couple is legally recognized by the State of New York as married and therefore entitled to live together, yet must live separately due to the availability of housing at their residential service.

Although it is a provider agency’s duty to affirm the rights of individuals receiving services via Medicaid reimbursement, agencies have some leeway in dictating its policy on an individual’s freedom to express sexuality as per New York law. Additionally, there are no regulations that prevent a married couple from living together in a group home or designing a group home specifically for married couples. Therefore, the state’s vagueness leaves the recognition of married couples at the discretion of the provider agency.

To the New American Movement Team, this case is at the heart of ensuring that people with disabilities have the same rights as every citizen to live fulfilled lives, with particular focus to emotional and social well-being. After seeing some of the reader responses to this article in the Asbury Park Press, we are appalled by the ignorant and insensitive comments as to this couple’s ability to live together.

First, having a disability does not lessen or undermine a human’s capacity to love and/or to participate in sexual relations. The comment made by Patricia Hynoski regarding sterilization of the couple is an abhorrent suggestion and outwardly offends the United States’ inherent equality.

Second, the suggestion that the couple can simply “move” if they are discontent with the policies or accommodations of their service provider ignores both the complexity of disability support services and the desires of all romantic couples with disabilities who receive supports. Having the couple “move” to find services is another suggestion that disregards the social needs of the couple. Moving to another provider would uproot their social capital and deliberately discounts the value of the couples friends, job and families in their lives. Furthermore, suggesting that the couple move completely eliminates the responsibility of the provider agency to make “reasonable modifications” as asserted by the provisions of the ADA.

Residential service providers, rather than ignoring the needs of couples, should incorporate the romantic and emotional needs into their services. Although at this time accommodating a married couple residentially may not be possible for the group homes in discussion, the service providers should make efforts to support healthy relationships. For example, events such as a “Couples Night” recognizes and encourages the innate needs of all humans to experience love and be loved in return. Residential service providers need to acknowledge these needs of the population they serve to anticipate and implement best practices.

To love and be loved in return is inherent to all human beings. Providing a system of support that encourages love in the disability community is both a basic need and integral to fulfilling our commitment to independent living. To overlook or deny the rights of the disability community in their capacity to love and be loved undermines our ability to truly fulfill our commitment to bettering the lives of others. Love should be at the forefront of all human interactions – neighbors, siblings, parents, spouses, and children – and direct the supports we provide rather than taking the back seat to self-imposed policy limitations.

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